The Optimistic Decade deserves the elusive accolade of “original” for its believable construction and flawless attention to detail. Within the brilliant, multilayered canopy of the novel’s world, Heather Abel’s writing comes across as a sincere and tender channel for a story that must be told.
Rebecca, a college freshman, can’t imagine becoming anything other than a journalist. Her parents have run a liberal newspaper called Our Side Now for decades. When Rebecca’s family decides to shut down production, they send her to her cousin’s summer camp in rural Colorado to be a counselor. At the camp, Rebecca’s horizons broaden until she can barely recognize herself. This could be classified as a coming-of-age tale, but the growth is not limited to the adolescents. The adults experience just as much disruption and turmoil as their younger counterparts, spinning a rippling theme of never-ending expansion of the self.
Abel’s writing easily captures the vivid wilderness of Colorado, and her flashes of description somehow create a sense of nostalgia for multiple eras, as the story and backstory juxtapose the Reagan years with the onset of the Gulf War. As Abel’s characters surmise, perhaps everyone gets one optimistic decade before they can no longer deny that their actions are inconsequential and the future is going to happen whether they like it or not. Each person must choose to keep pushing forward, because a life without purpose is just as dissatisfying as dwelling in worthlessness.
Above all else, this strong, astute debut is a study of love in many forms. To read it is nothing less than a mitzvah.